The preschool hallway was lined with finger-painted pumpkins and scarecrows with Cheerios eyes. Footprint Frankensteins leered in laminated rows, and chalk-drawn bats circled overhead. My daughter clung to me, needy, lip quivering and eyes as big as Halloween moons.
She usually whines when it’s time to say goodbye, sometimes putting on a theatrical show just as I’m leaving the classroom. Today, though, was different.
Since she awoke this morning I could sense that something was wrong: she was stressed, perhaps, about our recent move, or maybe she didn’t get enough sleep. Our neighbor’s cat had died, a loss that to me was unexpectedly felt by my children. Could that be what this was about?
She’d insisted on sitting on my lap as I sipped my coffee, twirling my hair with her tiny finger. She’d held my face between her hands and pressed her forehead to mine, our secret-handshake I love you sign.
Something was working its way through her 3 year old mind, some kind of heaviness that went deeper than her typical clinginess.
In the preschool hallway with the pumpkins and bats and the noises of children as they filed into their rooms I leaned over and asked my daughter what she was thinking about. Without hesitating she asked, “Why do you have to leave me and why does everything have to die?”
I knew from her tone that this was what she’d been mulling over all morning, probably because of the neighbor’s beloved pet. It was about her sense that seasons change, that children grow up, and that life itself comes to an end. Someone once told me that every goodbye is a little death, that each parting gives us a foretaste of the inevitable. I recognized in my daughter’s eyes the toddler version of this kind of pain.
As parents we’re not always able to answer the tough questions. Our kisses don’t always take away the pain, and we can’t protect them from the truth of our own vulnerability. But we can help them bear it. We can walk them through it. We can reassure them and let them know we understand.
Instead of trying to answer her question directly— because, let’s face it, I couldn’t— I pulled her close. I cupped her sweet face in my hands, touched my forehead to hers, and gave her the sacred secret handshake of mother and child, the unspoken heart-whisper that says I may not be here forever, sweet girl, but my love for you will be.
More by Mary Lauren:
Mary Lauren Weimer is a social worker turned mother turned writer. Her blog, My 3 Little Birds, encourages moms to put down the baby books for a moment and tell their own stories. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.
Learn more about kids and grief: How to Explain Death to Children